Nothing like a Kentucky warbler to restore a brighter outlook on life

Kentucky warblers are ready to fledge just eight to nine days after hatching. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

I could hear it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see it. The bird was right in front of me and singing incessantly. Prr-reet, prr-reet, prr-reet. The sound was loud enough that it must be close, but I kept staring futilely into the underbrush.

We had left Washington, DC, to get away from the endless acrimony. I needed a change of scenery and of perspective. But my frustration in the field was not helping with the emotional reset I had hoped for.

Finally, movement — a quick flash of yellow and I zeroed in on the spot with my binoculars. Mostly obscured by foliage, the bright underside was a solid, vibrant yellow. I inched closer to change my vantage point slightly, and the head came into view. Ah! A Kentucky warbler! And just like that, I felt better.

With spectacles and wide sideburns, the Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa) is distinctive. It’s just exceedingly hard to see.

At one-half ounce, the Kentucky is considered a medium-size wood warbler. It has a bold yellow eyebrow that curves around and partially under the eye, making it look like the bird is wearing fancy, yellow-framed designer eyeglasses.

He also had a black cap and a diagnostic black marking that started as a narrow black line from bill to eye before growing into a large black splotch under the eye and covering the back of the face. These oddly shaped sideburns are a great field mark.

In females, the spectacles and sideburns are lighter — grayish or even dark olive.

In both sexes, the bright yellow underside goes from the chin all the way to the undertail coverts. Up top, they are olive, with some darker feathers on the wings.  

The Kentucky has jet black eyes and bill, and it stands on longish pink legs.

We were in a section of Shenandoah National Park where the Appalachian Trail runs through it. These forests are a favorite breeding territory for Kentucky warblers.

These birds are extremely territorial, and they require large tracts of mostly intact forests to breed successfully. They inhabit the dense understory of deciduous forests, particularly favoring areas where sunlight can foster the undergrowth they need. Bottomland forests where streams provide water and light are ideal.

Their preferred habitat, of course, makes them difficult to find. Luckily, the male Kentucky warbler loves to sing. These birds are hard to see, but their song helps us locate them.

Like most warblers, Kentuckys are insect eaters. They skulk about, snatching caterpillars, larvae, mites and winged prey during much of the day. 

When the birds migrate, though, they do so at night.

Kentucky warblers winter in Mexico, Central America, and into northern South America. In an annual miracle, all of these tiny creatures fly north in early spring, with the entire population of more than 2.5 million coming to the United States.

Most come north through Mexico, but large numbers fly for hours over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

They arrive exhausted and emaciated, but they aren’t done. After a few days of rest and refueling, they continue their journey north.

Kentuckys inhabit forests from Pennsylvania across to Illinois and down to the Gulf States, although not along the coast itself. In the Chesapeake, they arrive in May. At the end of the breeding season, in early August, they all start heading south.

When Kentuckys arrive, they get right to work on reproduction. The female constructs a cup nest on the ground and typically lays four eggs over as many days. All four eggs hatch within a few hours of one another, revealing blind, featherless, helpless chicks. They grow quickly and are ready to fledge just eight to nine days later. They require support from their parents for about three more weeks before they are completely independent.

Although the authoritative Breeding Bird Survey is documenting a slight northward expansion of its range, the Kentucky warbler population trend is moving steadily downward. Since 1966, the number of Kentuckys has fallen by more than one-third.

Scientists think the population decline is primarily a function of habitat destruction, both on its breeding grounds and especially of its winter tropical forest habitat. More research is needed to see if the birds will adapt to the proliferation of shade-grown coffee plantations in the tropics.

Under the authority of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Joint Venture program, the United States has partnered with our southern neighbors to fund projects to protect these birds and their vital habitat. At a time of harsh rhetoric from some aimed at Latin America, neotropical migratory birds are bringing nations closer together.

This little songster had given me the emotional lift I sought and a hint of international cooperation. Emily Dickinson’s poem came to mind, 

“Hope is the thing with feathers, 

That perches in the soul, 

And sings the tune without the words, 

And never stops at all.”

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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